The stark realities still facing girls throughout the world today

Progress towards a gender equitable world has been slow and uneven

Unfortunately, in 2020 a gender equitable world is still a long way off. This year marks 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – a historic conference where global legal equality was adopted by countries worldwide.

This is when Hillary Clinton famously said: “Human Rights are Women’s Rights and Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” Shockingly, this statement is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago.

Progress has been uneven and far from equitable.

Even in the middle of this developing health emergency and global pandemic it is important to continue the work for equality. We must ensure that when we emerge from this crisis that progress made is not lost.


Containing the spread of the virus is every national government’s priority. Measures should be explored on how to combat the ways in which Covid-19 is likely to aggravate the already existing social, political and economic inequalities in society.

The disproportionate effects that Covid-19 will have on women and particularly girls must be addressed, particularly for those living in crisis and conflict.

It is imperative that both girls and women’s lives continue to improve with the implementation of any recovery plan.

A New Era for Girls, a recently published report by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), Plan International and EU Women, shines a bright light on the stark realities facing girls today and reviews the progress made for girls in key dimensions of their lives.

It is evident that the key to accelerating progress and achieving true gender equality is that girls need to be involved in the decision-making process and in the designing of solutions that affect their future – measures that I have seen to be incredibly effective throughout my career, “You have to see it to be it.”

Startling figures and statistics

There are many startling figures and statistics contained in the report. Some are very positive and others are of great disappointment to read after 25 years of “so called” progress.

The report highlights the distinct but related differences between childhood and adulthood. Girls’ needs are specific even though they are interwoven with the needs of women. Girls’ voices need to be heard at the decision-making table to ensure decisions about their future, health and education are fully understood.

Some of the main points of the report are as follows:

Girls born today can expect to live nearly eight more years, on average than girls born in 1995.

Some 13 million girls aged 15-19 years have experienced forced sex in their lifetime. An appalling statistic, behind which there is a life of a young girl. In the majority of countries with available data, fewer than 10 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15-19 years who experienced forced sex sought professional help. The underlying reasons for this are varied.

Globally 970,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 years are living with HIV today, compared with 740,000 in 1995, an unwelcome increase.

The number of girls out of school worldwide dropped by 79 million between 1998 and 2018. At primary school level, the number fell by more than 50 per cent – 65 million to 32 million. Today, two in three girls of secondary school age globally are enrolled in secondary school compared with only one in two in 1998. The gender gap in primary school enrolment has narrowed from 6 per cent to 2 per cent and at secondary level, the gender gap has closed, although there are wide regional variations; sub-Saharan Africa shows the smallest increase in percentage. Worldwide, four out of five girls complete primary school but only two out of five complete upper secondary school; this is most prevalent in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

The number of female youths aged 15-24 years who are illiterate declined from 100 million to 56 million between 1995 and 2018, but one in 10 female youth remain illiterate today. Literacy is a basic skill necessary for personal growth but a gender gap at the expense of girls persists. Adolescent women aged 15-24 make up 56 per cent of the global illiterate youth population today. At the end of lower secondary school, girls outperform boys in reading across all countries. Results in mathematics are more varied. Lower expectations of girls in other subjects reinforce gender stereotypes and create unnecessary barriers to girls developing essential skills in science, technology and engineering.

Globally, participation of girls in the labour force aged 15-24 has declined from 47 per cent to 33 per cent today. This is mainly due to more girls accessing education. It must be noted that a sizeable gender gap persists. Nearly one in four girls aged 15-19 years globally are neither in education, employment nor training compared with one in 10 boys of the same age.

Since 1995, the proportion of young women who were married as children has declined dramatically, from one in four to approximately one in five. But progress is far from universal. Millions of girls remain at risk of child marriage today, particularly the poorest girls. All but four of 170 countries specify 18 as legal minimum age for marriage for girls; nearly two-thirds of countries allow girls to marry before the age of 18 with parental or judicial consent.

Nearly four in 10 adolescent girls globally think wife-beating is justified. This suggests that it can be difficult for married girls who experience violence to seek assistance and for unmarried girls to identify and have healthy and equitable relationships. Interestingly, the acceptance of this among men is lower.

After puberty, girls’ risks of depressive disorders increase substantially and they are more likely than boys to be diagnosed with clinical depression. Among adolescent girls aged 15-19, suicide is the second leading cause of death, surpassed only by maternal conditions.

Globally, the proportion of girls aged five to 19 years who are overweight has nearly doubled since 1995 (9-17 per cent) and those who are moderately or severely underweight has remained the same.

The prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) has declined over the past 25 years but the pace of decline has been uneven. Despite FGM being internationally recognised as a human rights violation, one in three adolescent girls aged 15-19 years still experience FGM today in 31 practising countries with national data on prevalence.

The adolescent birth rate has declined globally but remains high in sub-Saharan Africa (103 births per 1,000 girls). This can have a number of negative consequences on the health and wellbeing of girls with early childbearing being more common among the least educated.

It is evident that progress has been mixed and has failed to meet expectations in many areas. This decade should be one of action. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development renews the commitment to creating a world where all girls are healthy and protected, learn and have a fair chance to succeed. Commitment to these goals must result in direct investment in tackling the root causes of inequality.


To achieve gender equality, we have to reach out to other networks. We have to get more allies among boys and men. We have to work with the political leaders (who are often men) and bring girls’ empowerment up the agenda.

It is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic will have long-term economic and social impacts on Europe and beyond. It is crucial that EU member states step up to act in solidarity across the continent and globe to protect women and girls from bearing the burden of the crisis.

The EU should use this moment to realise a turning point in our societies. Now more than ever before it is clear to us that what matters most is health, communities and economic security. It has now been proven that a basic standard of living should and can be provided for all, this can only benefit all of us in the future.

As the whole world struggles economically and socially, let us remain alert to the challenges young girls face around the world today.

Frances Fitzgerald is a member of the European Parliament for the Dublin constituency.